A new era in Survivor is kicked off when the ultra-aggressive Tony Vlachos is named winner of Survivor: Cagayan.
|We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.
Why it Matters:
You shouldn’t be able to play like Tony Vlachos and win Survivor. We had 27 seasons worth of evidence that said aggressive gameplay like Tony’s, with the constant lying, paranoia, flipping, and blindsides, is not what wins Survivor. You need to be calm. You need to be social. It’s a game of small interactions, not big moves, despite what Probst may tell you. If you spend the whole game screwing people over, you will be punished by the jury. This is a game where you can fly under the radar to win, where you need to stay “cool, calm, and collective”, a game that you can’t manhandle into victory.
Or at least it was, until Tony Vlachos came along and took a sledgehammer to that entire way of thinking.
It turns out you can play an ultra-aggressive style and win Survivor, as long as you’re willing to forgo sleep to constantly run scenarios in your mind at night. And be a hard worker around camp to help deflect the bad feelings that arise from your style of play and provide opportunities to sneak off into the woods. And burst out into full sprints to find time to look for idols. And look for every opportunity to squeeze out an advantage, no matter how remote. Easy, huh?
Tony was able to play this way and win in part because the evolution of Survivor that occurred over the previous 27 seasons (and 29 or so series-altering moments). Fans of the show (of which Cagayan had a large supply) had been brought up to believe a player like Tony couldn’t actually win. In Survivor casting, there were “characters” and there were “players”, and you needed only be around Tony for a few minutes to realize that he was a capital C “Character”. So, sure, you let him run around and do crazy stuff, drawing all the attention and becoming the target while you sit back and wait for the opportune time to strike. If you’re going to fly under the radar, then you need someone to draw enemy fire, right?
Survivor is a marathon, not a sprint. And like all distance races, a seasoned competitor will let a rabbit go out front and push the pace to tire out less disciplined racers. You could even see Tony as the show’s attempt to employ a pacemaker to liven up the early parts of the season. But sometimes rabbits are actually front-runners, and before you know it, they’re crossing the finish line while you missed your opportunity to strike. And that’s what Tony Vlachos did. He exploited the passive nature that had become Survivor mantra, leading all those people who thought him their shield staring dumbfounded once Jeff snuffed their torch.
By constantly staying on offence, Tony upset the rhythms of the game to his favour. (Editor’s note: Oh, Canada.) And goddamn if it wasn’t fun to watch. Tony became not only one of the great casting finds in the history of the show, but also a master strategist, always looking for an edge. Survivor has often had a problem with the fact that often the most interesting television was counterproductive to the objective of winning. Sure, it’s exciting to see Russell Hantz laying waste to his competitors, or even Malcolm Freberg making showy Tribal Council moves week after week, but history had shown that the more successful strategy is to make subtle, safe moves that guide you to the end.
There was nothing safe about Tony Vlachos’ game. Everyone who spoke to him knew he was up to something. He could tell lies from outside the game about his profession, or blindside key allies, or hunt for hidden idols, and not fool anyone while still kind of fooling everyone. Because they didn’t believe him a real threat until it was too late. Because modern juries no longer punished aggressive gameplay as long as it wasn’t personal. Tony Vlachos was subverting tropes to his advantage, while providing a road map for future Survivors on how to take control of the game in the showiest way possible.
So why is Tony winning the “Moment”, rather than one of his iconic moves like blindsiding LJ, or building spy shacks, or using Spencer and Tasha as his heat-deflecting meat shields? Because few took any of his moves seriously until after they proved successful. Throughout Cagayan, his fellow players would bemusedly discuss this crazy, hyperactive schemer in their midst as a problem to deal with later, if at all (since at least one of them was pretty sure he’d be punished in front of a jury for his actions. Whoops).
Even worse than the reaction of Tony’s victims was the reactions of the Survivor fan community as it was happening. Everyone was so sure of the previous paradigm of how to play the game that every one of Tony’s moves was treated by the majority of observers with either significant skepticism or outright scorn. This spazzy big guy with a funny accent was going to get burned, they thought, like all the other Characters before him.
People were so loathe to give Tony the credit he deserved that all the “mastermind” and “strategist” credit was instead handed to a player who spectacularly failed at everything he tried in the game (besides winning immunity a few times). Because we’d seen Spencers win before (like Cochran, a.k.a. the Spencer who doesn’t suck). We’d never seen a Tony win. Then we did. And would again. And will again.
(And this is the part where I mention that at least one semi-prominent Survivor podcast was on the “Tony is changing Survivor” bandwagon pretty early. I mean, not “after the premiere of the season” early, but still. They came around pretty early in the process and had a pretty good time saying “I told you so” when it was over. And will continue to do so).
Because once you see someone go out there and dominate the game AND win as a result? Why wouldn’t you try and play like that? As long as you don’t think about how freaking hard it must’ve been for Tony to juggle all those balls for 39 days, it sure does look a lot more fun than just quietly managing egos and minimizing risk. Tony Vlachos was the rampant id of every Survivor fan sitting on the couch desperately wishing that the players on the screen would do something, ANYTHING for our amusement.
So, sure, Natalie Anderson flies under the radar for a while in San Juan del Sur. But when it’s winning time? She does it in the most public fashion possible, blindsiding one member of her alliance at Tribal Council and then cutting her closest ally down in front of the jury so there was no doubt as to who was playing the hardest. (And who did Natalie list as the contestant she was most like? Tony Vlachos).
Mike Holloway? He was basically the friendly, challenge-winning version of Tony Vlachos: throwing challenges pre-merge to target his biggest personal threat early (interestingly, that was a move even Tony wasn’t willing to make, as he wasn’t in on the “throw a challenge to get rid of Cliff Robinson plan”), aggressively hunting for idols, spying on contestants from hidden locations (in his case, tree tops rather than bushes), holding out an entire auction for an advantage, being disruptive with idols at Tribal Council.
It’s much too soon to tell, but I have a theory that thanks to Tony the strategy of flying under the radar is, if not completely dead, at least entering a dormant phase in Survivor. If you lay back and wait for the action to come to you, then players like Tony, like Natalie, like Mike are going to snatch it in front of you. Juries aren’t going to reward someone who didn’t “make any enemies” along the way: they want to know what you did to earn their votes (just ask Woo, or Jaclyn, or Carolyn how that went). They watched Tony play, and more importantly, they watched Tony win. And when they’re sitting on that jury box, they want to be entertained too.
But it’s not too soon to tell that we are in a post-Tony Vlachos era of Survivor. Game play is more aggressive and will only continue along that path until the next corrective action is discovered. Not everyone will win trying to play like Tony, and in fact more people will probably lose as a result, but they will try. Because you no longer have to decide if you’re a “character” or a “player”. You can be both. And you can win.
What Else Made the List?
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Co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast and the Canadian of the group, Andy has been watching Survivor continuously since the very beginning and likes to treat that as some kind of virtue to lord over others.
Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cagayan, Cook Islands, Palau, Winners at War
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino